According to the guide book, Incekum’s golden crescent of sand is deserted. Pass through a similar setting covered in hotels. Turn around ten miles later. Lesson here is don’t buy out of date guide books. Things develop. The standard of rooms is the highest I have seen. A mainly German clientele. Figures. Hot showers a relief after the tepid stuff that trickles out elsewhere. But after being sternly addressed in German through loud hailers in the expensive hotel grounds by men with walkie talkies I decide to move on. The big places section off the beach. They are welcome to their five star apartheid.
Do the sites. These ancients really had it sorted out. Cities that were civilised. Big gymnasia, bathing, talking areas. Mechanisation could now provide the labour of the work force. It makes you think. If only. Just need to deal with the problem of multi-national capitalism first.
And they understood drama. The theatres are set on the purple mountainside, vast valleys stretching beyond the stage. They knew about awe. Geography contributes to the action on stage, setting a vast perspective. I think all this on an outcrop, perched on the edge, the place to myself. Birds fluttering the only sound in the wind. Alone.
This country is a surprise. Drove for a day with sparkling lapis lazuli sea to my right and mountains to the left. Twisting up, huge views, and then down into small bays with a beach and fishing village. Marmalade oranges and russet reds in the hillsides. Then up again. The air is a balm for the lungs. There are banana groves here. I mean, bananas in Turkey. I never knew. The bigger towns have green houses devoted to them. The food has changed too. Out goes luke-warm veg in sauce. In comes everything with green chillies. Kebabs with zip.
Cappadocia is marvellous. Fairy chimneys and underground cities. A fantasy landscape. Wonderful. Two wheels is the only way to do it.
Nepal is lovely. So calm. Katmandu is full of backpackers moaning about India. That’ll teach them to listen to the Beatles.
Biting off more than I can chew? The Annapurna Circuit trek looks nice in the guidebook. Go for it. Not very sensible. But 21 days walking and climbing a pass of 5500 metres sure cleans out my lungs a treat after all those lorry fumes.
Should be leaving the country tomorrow but it has all been delayed. The Maoist guerrillas choose to kick off their struggle the day I want to leave the country. The state of emergency means my carpenter and freighting agent aren’t allowed into the airport. That and the fact I can't get the bloody front wheel off the bike to get it into the crate, cos the guys who changed the tyre in Delhi decided to tighten it until the alloys welded. So I am going back to the airport with a big f***-off torque wrench tomorrow morning with gritted teeth and some piping for extra leverage. Ho hum, the petit tribulations of the overland biker eh? Still, if this is my biggest worry I clearly haven't got much to complain about.
The state of emergency means that most of the shops are shutting early now: the locals get hassled by the police if they are out much after dark, so the waiters have to get home early, leaving us poor needy dollar-loaded tourists without entertainment outlets in the evenings. Criminal. The "Maoist problem" as it's called here--not the "corrupt feudal hierarchy problem"--has so many ramifications.
Meet three British guys who are cycling to Sydney today. To keep up the calories they are eating three meals for my one. They have no guidebooks or maps. A pocket diary with a Times world map printed in the back cover is sufficient. With a ruler and a splodgy biro they have drawn a line from London to Sydney: “it’s for directions”.
Take my extra fuel filter off: it is causing big loss of performance when the fuel gets low. And re-do the rack that the boys in Bethnal Green bodged. So far: the new fuel tank they fitted had a cloth left in it; the fuel filter they fitted is no good; the rack they made has broken, the fan-on switch is unusable, the valves were set wrong and the bolts they used for the engine guard protruded into the path of the front tyre.
Get dragged off the street into the local school and end up doing two year nine English lessons. Flashback. Just like back home: shabby buildings, and teachers with all the same issues about pay, status and overwork. The women work themselves into the ground, and the men get the management jobs because they can wear a dark suit better.
Weather is real bitter now. Two thousand metres above sea level. Not looking forwards to the big climb tomorrow shown on my map by a brown elevated area the road goes right through.
In Erzurum British our cyclist friends catch up. Funny how meeting someone on the road for a second time is enough to confirm a friendship. It’s good to meet British boys. Despite my English manners and received pronunciation, I quite like a few beers and leery talk now and again. They’re a bit stuck. Iran is not giving visas to Brits and US citizens, which is tough on those who aren’t personally responsible for bombing, wrecking and exploiting the Middle East. We discuss options. I had read somewhere about shipping from the Red Sea to Pakistan. They consult their diary map, eat more pitta and set off toward Jordan.
The climb doesn’t materialise, but I swear I’ll never drip kebab fat over my map again. Still, with the wind-chill I don’t like to think how cold it is. Maybe only taking summer gear was a mistake? I shove newspaper down my jacket and buy big mittens from the army surplus store. I can’t brake or use the clutch but my fingers aren’t blue any more. The roads are spectacular at times but ice hides in the shade cast by the valley sides. I remember coming off on my bicycle on the way back from school several times in the ice. Hurts your bum. Same principles must apply, so high gear and nice and slowly does it. Stay away from the brakes. Seems to work.
There’s no other traffic. Europe is a long way behind now. I am finding the emptiness of these roads and the wide unfamiliar spaces a little frightening. Everything on a motorcycle is more intense. That’s why it is so good. Multiply every sensation tenfold. Welcome to the real world. No walls, no bars, nothing between you and what you see, smell, hear and feel. When the sun flicks through the trees on a long straight you catch yourself thinking of heaven. In a car you wouldn’t notice. But on these desolate white-covered plains today it’s a different kind of intensity, not unlike looking at the ocean off a ship. The world seems big and I am very small and insignificant, easily forgotton.
Seeing spaghetti in a restaurant gets my hopes up. A break from the twice-daily low quality kebab. Receive wheat-based sludge in a sandwich. This proves to be my best meal. Can’t find breakfast. The preferred option here is sheep’s head: brain, eyes and cheek. Sometimes with feet on the side. For some reason this never caught on with Kelloggs.
Getting used to the hundreds of people that surround the bike every stop. Always the same pattern: lots of gentle intrusion, then, after five minutes or so, the local English speaker pushes to the front and politely asks if there is anything he can do to help and “where are you from” and “how much the bike cost?” before relaying the information to the assembly. An invite to his shop/home for tea usually follows.
They are a hospitable lot in Iran. Maybe it is the Islamic tradition of pilgrimage? Lose a tire pressure gauge to a small hand in one of the crushes around the machine. Very annoying, as filling air is the only maintenance I know how to do.
The caves in Ali Sadr are wonderful. A peddle boat take you to see the stalactites and ‘mites on a half hour tour underground. It is all harshly and rather inexpertly lit. Which increases the drama. Quotes from the Koran are pasted all around. Which increases the perplexity.
Otherwise the country’s attractions are mainly mosques. Aside from the holy stuff the built environment is appalling. Thrown up in the 1970s boom, everything has been left to deteriorate.
Looking for tips
A lorry driver near Shiraz seeing me using the garage pump and pressure gauge, approaches. The usual questions I assume. He looks at the bike and its luggage, walks back to his cab and then returns with a tyre pressure gauge which he hands to me shyly. No words are exchanged, just a thank-you expression. Karma.
My riding on the other hand is getting hard work. Their cars do 120kph without tread or road sense. My nerves are frayed. Even worse now it is Ramadan. They are madly keen to get home, hysterical on empty stomachs. There have been a couple of close shaves—although not the beard, which is growing nicely. Several days growth fits in with the rest of Iranian manhood. But not too long, cos this is the style of the hated clergy. George Michael it is then. Everywhere people criticize the regime and spend their time looking over their shoulder for the secret police. Even witness a raid in my hotel, cops banging down the door across the hallway at 4.00am. dragging out two unfortunates.
Meet some Dutch cyclists who have adopted a puppy they found by the roadside. It is tiny, and lives in her front handlebar carrier. They call it Khomeni. Like all those under their own power they emanate happiness and contentment. Their small family moves slowly south east.
Go down to Bandar e Abbas from Shiraz to get some warmth. Palms appears. The smugglers run the town, shipping in white goods from across the straights of Hormoz. The police stand aside as the fridges are wheeled across the port road, back pockets bulging.
Meet a British couple in a VW van. They have a motorcycle on the back. We have some fun racing nomads in the desert. Their smaller bikes are no match for our efficient Jap engines. The chaps don’t take too kindly to Samantha getting on the Suzuki DR650 and burning them off though. Choose not to hang around too long. It is the closest I get to seeing a feminist statement in Iran.
Back on the main route we meet our two Dutch friends. Khomeni is now in the prime of his adolescence, as long as the handlebars, at least 10kilos, bobbing along happily, seeing more of the world than dogs twice his age. I wonder did its owner count on the rapid weight gain when she put him in the basket all those weeks ago. Common to all cyclists, she is still beaming with life.
In the manual it says to adjust your motorcycle chain tension with the side stand down. What it doesn’t add is that heavy luggage will further stretch it, so you have to add compensating slack. Without it, the tight chain will be constantly under stress as the huge forces of the engine pull on it. So my chain packs up in the middle of the desert. It is past the last adjustment mark and jumping off the sprocket. Thankfully we are in convoy and I am able to put my bike on the trailer and borrow the DR600. How convenient.
We meet a Macedonian on a bicycle with one brake. He carries a bedroll and water bottle, no more. “I am travelling with without money” he says, “it is ecological statement”. We are aghast. We give him food and ask if there is anything more we can do “Yes, more food”. I am unsure of the worth of his statement, but most I doubt its sanity. He has a 800km desert ahead.
My first desert. Twelve hours in the saddle. Elation overcomes me. Such a long period of concentration—the one transferable skill from my student days. Like my body reorganises itself solely for riding. After this walking is a disappointment. Do Bam to Quetta in two days, including border crossing.
Get a local to take a couple of links out of my stretched chain using the fix-everything tool of Asia. Should prolong the usability for a while but will not last long, and is pretty dangerous. Have to get a new one sent out. This hands-on short-course bike maintenance apprenticeship is proving costly. I now can do tyre pressure, battery water level and chain tension. And put fuel in. Enough to tour the M25 maybe. Now, to cross Pakistan…
More relaxed. Everything slower and less tense. I like it a lot so far. The border inspector invites us to his house for a meal in the evening. Not the usual sort of welcome you get crossing borders. The spread is royal. He keeps, as they say in Italy, a rich table. After we have finished and are saying goodbye he shakes my hand like he is pumping petrol “I like Irish people and I like IRA”. I returned a sheepish smile and look at my feet. Looks like I owe Gerry a curry.
Spend Christmas in Larkana waiting for a chain set to arrive in the post. It never does. Money runs out. The solution is easy, a trip to the nearest ATM. Where’s is it, I enquire of the jewellers. A big toothy smile “Karachi”. Okay, fine, I get out the map. That’s six hundred kilometres each way. Sometimes I miss home. It is a five day round trip. I’ve known more convenient banking.
The Karakoram road, north Pakistan: a folly surely, winding up to China through unproductive low populated mountain ranges. Great riding though. The road is a ten metre ledge blasted out of the rock face. There is no vegetation above the monsoon limit. It is a high altitude desert. Down a sheer drop the Indus River rushes brown and empty of life.
Its real purpose has nothing to do with entertaining the dozen European bikers who come this way every year. Carving a way into the tribal areas opens the north up to the control of the central Pakistani state. With the trickle of trade come truck loads of tax collectors and policemen. The first time I have met hostility is here. The boys in one valley throw stones. I am forewarned of this and spot them crouching as they hear the bike. I use the same technique as for the ferocious sheep herding dogs of Turkey: slow down while they judge a trajectory, then hit the gas hard when they have committed, so that they are left trailing. It works. No bites. No stones. Just a smug smile. I even pat the bike’s gas tank in thanks like it had some choice it the matter. Have to watch that one, the anthropomorphic fallacy.
Burial in style
Get a new chain set from Europe, but find that Honda has sent the wrong front sprocket. How did they manage this? It is not hard: “1993 Transalp chain set”. Not much ambiguity there. Arse. The one they have sent has no holes for the retaining screws. I take it to the local metal shop to get them drilled. Four broken bits fly like bullets across the room. The almost tearful man at the drill gives up. They’ve never come across hardened steel.
The problem? Ultimately, me bring a rich world piece of technology to the poor world. More specifically, it is down to my poor maintenance skills. Even more concretely, and this is the explanation I favour, it is down to those completely bloody incompetent idiots at Nantes Honda.
The guy comes up with a solution that involves welding a piece on top of the sprocket. As I am asking how long it will hold I just know that the answer will involve the word Inshallah. I get ill: too much riding, not enough hydration. Stupid stupid stupid. Now I pay the price with a week in bed of fever and shivers. Throw away more knick knacks, and get some sent in to replace them.
The embers from last night's fiery barricades have died down, but tension is still high following Saturdays gun battles between police and Sunni muslims. Three mullahs have been arrested and four days of general strikes have ensued. Gilgit: definitely the place to come for a rest. Stories vary, but it seems a Shii schoolboy tore out a page from his Sunni religious textbook. This escalated quickly. Now there are burning tyres on each street corner and every man carries a firearm.
There is a lot of tension between the two sects; the majority (a version of Shii) here has subordinate status to the Sunni who run Pakistan. I would imagine that there is a constant negotiation over the relationship. At present it is being conducted with guns. Reports are of two dead, but I can’t be sure. Intervention from Islamabad settles things down by the time I am on my feet again. No one will tell me the truth, just that everything is alright, nothing to worry about.
Go east to Kahpulu, past Skardu towards India. Take a wrong turn on the way and end up dangerously near Kargil. Didn’t see any of the shells the two countries regularly share with each other, but the secret police were very keen for us to turn around once they had got all our details.
The idea was to escape the heat to what the guidebook called a tranquil area of orchards and trees. The place is fiercely hot and dusty. Can’t buy any fruit anywhere.
My front sprocket chooses a perfect time to brake, in the idle of nowhere ten-to-fifteen miles from town at midday on a shadeless piece of road on a dangerous corner. I can fix it with my new 8mm spanner bought specially for the purpose. I go at it for an hour and find, being made in India, it is something around 8.5 and is specially designed to burr nuts, not take them off. In my hands it’s doing its job perfectly. Two locals walk by and look for a while at my sweaty red angry face.
They are unmoved. I stare at the small recessed nut. So simple. So taxing. The guys and I talk with gestures. They are set off to get me a 8mm that is truer to its name. I follow the shade around the single tree. They are gone three hours, but return true to their word. What generosity. To a stranger. Amazing. The guy won’t shake my hand after we’ve done the job. Not sure whether this is because of my infidel status or dirty handed status.
Go a while. Then have a puncture. As the Skardu-Gilgit road is truly in the middle of nowhere this could have been a problem. A passing tractor driver directs me round the corner to the puncture repair shop. Sometimes it is alright really. But I really should have learnt how to fix a puncture before leaving.
The storms have blown the bridges down. Stuck in Gilgit. A day turns into a week, turns into a month. It is 45 degrees in the day. The shade of the trees helps, but the tent never gets cool. I can hardly move after eight in the morning. I hate the heat. Money running out. No ATM up here. Just lots of greasy meat and bread. Thankfully we’re not the only ones, and strike up a fraternity of Shithead players. We even make a passable pizza out of tomatoes and unleavened bread. I escape with ten dollars to my name. The army put up some temporary metal bridge to replace the washed away one, which will doubtless still be being used in twenty years.
Wind is so hot I can’t breath. Have to pull over. In the middle of the most incredible storm. As we are on a plateau, the weather just seems to settle on the roof: lightening strobing for hours right on top of our position, while the rain is determined to find ingress through the tin roof. Next morning the hotelier tells us a village in the adjoining valley was washed away. He notes my puzzled expression. “Yes, the whole village. Very sad”. Three hundred dead. I know this won’t even make the World Service news, and it doesn’t.
Ride in the monsoon rain all day pondering on the wisdom of sending back my water-proofs. Jeans are still wet two days later and all my underwear is kinda crusty (enough detail yeah?). Islamabad is similarly flooded. The infrastructure just can’t take the level of precipitation, which is a shame cos this happens every year. The tree tops poke out of the water, bloated cows float past hoof-up and the police move on the spectators.
Entry into India is a bit of a gas. They are a bit wary of foreigners since a German couple drove a whole van of rifles over the border for the Kashmiri rebels: “open please”. The elderly customs officer can’t make sense of my girlfriend’s tampon collection. But he is sure that they are suspicious. He holds one up. I make some nodding and smirking type moves to let him know the general nature of the items. “Women’s things” I say. It doesn’t help. So I search the English vocabulary for a more precise description. But, my language is not too forthcoming on below waist matters.
So it’s going to have to be gestures. What others make of the pantomime, I don’t know. It is kind of tricky to do the motions of putting things up your crotch in public. But I do my best. Not a bad rendition I reckon. I’m wondering about my Oscar nomination, but he is not convinced. Just more perplexed. Okay gloves off—I get all graphic. He pushes his chin up, breathes and says “not possible sir” and marches away. Off the hook.
Oh no. He returned with all his colleagues. A dozen. So it was time for a re-run of my finest performance. They are a bit more in the mood for laughter, so it turns out okay. They still didn’t believe me, but have no way to argue with something so obviously ludicrously untrue.
McLoudganj is the home of the Dalai Lama. Lots of Tibetans, Buddhists, and western tourists having a look. There are lots of western food options and India is looking reassuring familiar after the stay in Pakistan. The third world was getting to me. As was daal and mutton curry for every meal. Call ‘round the DL house but he is unavailable: I am told he can’t be disturbed while he is watching Santa Barbara, the fourth series where Kelly leaves Scott.
The guy on the computer next to me has full Buddhist robes and sandals, tattoos and a short mohican. I see over he has Punkmonk157 before his @. That means there are another 156 of them out there.
I make small talk with the lady on the roof terrace in Delhi. “I am travelling with a lama” she says proudly. She stretches a sheet between poles: “He doesn’t like the sun”.
“Right”. I have heard of a guy doing it with an elephant; his book is in the travel section at Borders. An Andean quadruped would be easier to feed I guess. “No trouble getting him up the stairs?”
She furrows her brow “No. Of course not. He’s very fit”.
“What does he eat?”
“Same as me”. I remember that the Incas didn’t have the wheel, but they did have a very developed system of trade and exchange based on the animal. I tell her this, and her calm demeanour drops for a moment. She seems to sneer and then turns away. I go downstairs but there’s no sign of it.
It’s a day before I realise it was llama she was saying.
Packing the bike so the train can take the strain
Time to question myself again. What is this all about exactly? I am sitting among a thousand vehicles in a undisciplined mass trying to squeeze through a bottleneck caused by an overturned cart that got hit by a speeding bus avoiding a bunch of wandering cows; and the paper said 35 degrees-but that means what, maybe 45 here on the tarmac in the exhaust fumes?--and the humidity is 90 per cent and the sun is right overhead and my brains are boiling but taking off the helmet would be worse and I really should have hydrated more before leaving, and that guy in the 4WD is going to run right over my left foot if I let him, and how the hell am I going to turn right across three lanes which has eight vehicles across it? I would like to say it was some kind of a test, that there was a point to it, that award stars, marks out of ten and a prefect badge are given at the end. But it’s not. Life sometimes is just plain hard. Indian life is particularly hard. I am just glad I don’t have to live it outside of vacation time. And, when I find today’s journey to customs is in vain I haven’t the energy to get annoyed.
Lots of black smoke from the back of the bike today. So I learn the meditative benefits of carb dismantling all evening. Doesn’t do any good though.
The monsoon builds
Goa still has it border posts in place from when it was separate from India, ramshackle now. The steel barrier across the road is patched-up with planks of wood tied with rope. Someone must have hit that with something big. The guy asks for my carnet de passage. Give it. My passport. Give it. International driving permit. Give it. International certificate of motor vehicle ownership. Give it. Bike ownership papers. Give them. Driving licence. Give it. I have never had to show this much paperwork ever. Although the famous Bombay boob bus is history (for guys to come and ogle the western females on the beach), the wealth of Goa still draws policeman. They pay for a posting here. Big money, which they then recoup extracting tourist moolah.
There’s a pause. “Sir, your pollution certificate”. Now there’s something I can’t give. As both parties are full aware, it doesn’t exist, and, indeed, is a bit of a bad joke in filthy stinking India. We knock the idea back and forth. He waves his finger and asks for twenty dollars. I politely decline. He sternly makes the international sign for handcuffs. I guess for a gap-year boy on a hired scooter down from the beach this would be terrifying. It’s a disgrace. I’m supposed to fall at his feet begging to be kept out of an Indian jail. In my best haughty western way I grab my papers and leave. I ride back twenty minutes fuming, furiously debating strategies in my head. But it is two day’s ride around this post. What is it stopping me paying the bribe? Behind most of guys’ so-called principles is vanity. So I U-turn back to the border wondering what level of payment will save my precious pride.
This is the corner. Around this corner is my grasping guard. And then a funny thing happens. My right wrist is dipping, the revs are rising, I am really going to do this. And I do. At seventy mph I guess I am visible for only a couple of seconds before I am under the barrier. I take it on the right at its highest point, head tucked over the tank racing style. They really should have fixed it properly.
Asking for it weren’t they? Was my man carrying a gun? Probably not loaded; he’d have to pay for his own bullets. No training either. Never hit me. It’s a rush all right. I am Steve McQueen, Barry Sheen, fit and lean, Roy Keene. Yippee yah hoo. Transalp transgressor. Catch me if you can.
I read a defence of the Indian bakshish system once. I think it was Mark Tully. He said it was democratic. Because it is so all pervasive and open, everyone gets a share. So the road workers build the road nine metres instead of ten, the inspector signs it off as ten, the contractor pays the contractee the necessary sum and everyone takes their equal share of the money created by the one missing metre. Sorted no? Just don’t ask about the quality of the roads of the increasing number of maimed people.
Someone teaches me how to clean my air filter. Black smoke goes away. The magic of mechanics.
Despite their purgative effects on my stomach, The Ghats along the western coast are quite an experience: each climb and descent two thousand metres on Indian hairpins. They certainly focus the mind. Just the one near death, but my cornering is super sharp. The bike coughs a bit up there. Something about the altitude. Maybe I should re-jet or somesuch, but hell, I'll only be coming down again.
Otherwise, the machine seems to like mountains (it’s in the name I guess), the gearing appears well judged. I have enjoyed keeping the revs high and experimenting with braking combinations. In Britain the advanced riding instructors tell you try to ride without using the brakes--all with the gears. I have found that this gives a much reassuring feel in the corner, as the bike is not pitching forwards onto the front, which puts more demands on the tyre and suspension. It also forces you to think ahead more. Thirdly, it means you are in the right gear for exit. Maybe I’ll never be Barry Sheen though.
It’s gorgeous up there over the plains, but white-knuckle and wide-open eyes are de rigueur. Even the various head-on wrecks en route don’t seem to discourage the locals from the blind bend overtakes. Terror is riding pillion.
Stumble onto a dance display.
Conoor is fresh, high amid tea plantations. The women and carry huge loads on their heads. The distance keeps it unreal. Those baskets must weigh half their body weight. Picturesque poverty; the sort people like above their mantelpieces back home. I wonder do the locals here have porcelain figurettes of the dossers under Waterloo Bridge, with fine detailing of the cardboard boxes and loony brew tins.
The big squares and stone buildings of Mysore break the pattern of congested cramped public spaces. The place still stinks of diesel and petrol fumes though; like everywhere in India, days of jasmine and cardamom fragrance are long gone. Did they ever exist? Sometimes I feel that I am fifteen years too late for this country. Industrialisation and the spread of car ownership have robbed it of the charm the sixties’ travellers loved.
Instead Bangalore poses as the India of the future. Feels like a budget western theme park. Arcades, coffee shops and hamburgers. The second-rate consumerism was fun as a change, starved of beef and escalators as I am, but what a dreadful model of development. I did enjoy the steak florentina though.
Bike problems drag me down a bit. When it suffers I suffer. Am trying not to form any emotional attachment to what is after all merely a combination of metals and liquids, but don’t always succeed. Have successfully resisted giving it a name. I am proud of this, eve if I can’t look after the bloody thing.
The place is sticky the way a foreign metropolis should be. Lots of "Hello you want to be my friend?" The heels and crimson paint landscape is a bit of a shocker after the subcontinent. The women are up front all right. I get my first proposition in the terminal.
Am bitten by a stray dog on New Year’s Eve in Surat Thani. Still struggling with the metaphorical significance: extirpating last year’s sins or a portent of a troublesome 2002? I don’t fancy the rabies treatment. Us children of 1970s England were subjected to some pretty horrific video nasties at school in the name of education. The bite victim was shown manacled to a table writhing while masked doctors thrust 20cm needles into the kidneys. Not looking forwards at all.
The last European human rabies fatality was in the 1930s. Looking back the Keep Rabies out of Britain campaign had nothing to do with public health awareness and everything to do with instilling a suspicion in the Queen’s subjects of the dangerously diseased continentals. As it happens the experience is fairly pleasant. Being fated by kind Thai nurses in clean modern hospitals is not so bad at all. And the needle was small. Okay, I felt a bit of a prick, but this is nothing new.
My life centres on the low compression in my front cylinder and seafood. Only the one has the bite I like.
Get to the Laos border. Nice little spot by the Mekong: bamboo huts, banana shakes and all that. The riding has been wonderful today. Up in the hills on the Golden Triangle backroads in an area settled by Chinese that were on the wrong side in the revolution. There is plenty of what the Lonely Planet calls hill tribes. On the bike I pass through real people’s lives catching a few glances. It’s enough. It makes next to no impact. Better than unloading off a 52-seater camera shutters clacking. They glance up from their work and wave occasionally. When did anyone last wave at a ten tonne coach?
Chang Mai is full of bar girls up from the south. In the e-mail cafes they pass around a template letter and slowly copy it out two-fingered, changing the name appropriately: “When you come back? I am missing you. So so love you.” It's funny for a short time. They are well organised, dedicated and thorough in their poverty escape strategies.
Funny what you come across
My centre stand falls off. Broken weld. It has been bashed too many times: another fault caused by the knackered suspension. Otherwise things are real good.
Was blocked at the door of a Bangkok cinema the other night. An elephant had decided to sit down on the steps. The exiting audience all waited patiently. No hurry. It waddled off in its own time, revealing two flashing LED cycle lights stuck to its bum. To alert other road users I guess. Captured something, that moment. I am sad to leave Thailand.
Everyone likes it here. There’s nothing to dislike. There's nearly no traffic outside the capital so you can indulge yourself happily winding through the misty mountains for hours on end. And, above all, they have coffee and baguettes (the legacies of France). Now how good is that? The people are calm and friendly. And the backpackers can pretend that they are discovering it for themselves.
Opium is readily available. Whole villages in the north seem to have gone over to catering for the Lonely Planet carriers, providing bunks and food and drugs with weekly rates. I guess it conforms to an image of what travelling is all about. They choose not to notice that it is not 1969 any more.
Overlanders en masse
For me, aside from the quaint French town of Luang Probaang, with its extensive book collections (three whole shops worth) there is not much here aside from hill villages. And the whole rich foreigner situation is starting to bug me: my hulk of expensive metal zooms through the agricultural villages. The people get to look on open-mouthed. I get to feel smug. It’s not healthy is it? I am an out of context problem. Time to move on.
Overland bikers tend to gravitate together; the magnetic pull of the aluminium panniers or something. Seven of us cross en mass into Vietnam. It is great fun. What a sight we make ploughing north through the rain to Hanoi. Feeling smug. Hanoi is my favourite city so far. It is small, it is raining, there are few tourists. Perfect.
The tunnels at Vinh Moc central Vietnam were dug so the villagers could avoid the murderous bombs in the American war—a testament to both human perseverance and brutality. The couples of Vietnam now use them for far less martial pursuits. Before leaving, our party had to wait until the panting stopped. Now that’s a multi-use building.
Stay at one of those government places that have a huge Karaoke screen under the giant bust of Ho Chi Minh in the hall. This is one of the land’s great terrific contradictions. “We make sing-song” the hotelier explains cheerfully on my arrival. Six thirty in the morning the sing song kicks off, agggghhhh.
But this is what I like about Vietnam, the combination of the command economy, Stalinist bureaucracy and a money free for all. Someone said that they are trying to build capitalism without the instruction manual. That’s about right. At the moment it is still endearing. Won’t be in a decade though, when the poverty, inequality and exclusion are as normal as coca-cola and McDonalds.
I overhaul the front brake. Getting through too many pairs of flip-flops using the sole of my foot on the front wheel. Connect up the tubes the wrong way off the petcock into the rear cylinder. It makes a horrible noise on start-up. I think it’s blown the pistons rings. It’s burning oil and smells real bad. My biker compatriots now refuse to go behind me. Feel like the class’ smelly boy no one wants to go near.
Vietnam still has the propaganda tannoys in smaller towns. Mr. Speakerman kicks off at 5.30am, with a selection of his favourite marching tunes. Not my favourite wake-up.
The guidebook hates Vietnam’s architecture. I don’t. Concrete is a pretty good medium for a developing country. And there’s nothing wrong with squares and rectangles. Coming around to the benefits of plastic and combustion engines too. They bring huge problems with them, but, in practice, it is obvious that they have improved the living standards of millions.
Mark, Ennio and me (left to right)
Real difficult getting the toothless hotel lady out of my room at night. I think she is after more than an extended English lesson. Everything is being communicated on paper, us not sharing a language. It could have made for a fascinating night of expressive drawing. Although, on reflection, given that I failed my art O level, things might have gotten snapped. Nasty.
Have a fine drive through the coffee plantations. Off the joyless north-south Highway One the temperature drops, the traffic thins out to almost nothing and the people get all smiley. No tourists.
Coffee town number one is pronounced “Boom m’ twat”, which is funny for some reason. The ten foot plants line the highway and the town’s people are obviously raking it in. Unlike those who do the picking. Vietnam is the third biggest coffee producer in the world I’m told. The brew comes short and fearsome, like the strongest espresso you’ve ever had, only stronger. It tastes like it has brandy in it. Makes me dizzy. Before ordering another.
In Delat I discover a drawback of finding a hotel in the dark. You can’t see the roof. Last night I thought I was getting a dead good deal at 5USD for en suite with breakfast. Morning is different. The bloody thing isn’t built yet is it? My siesta attempts are fruitless as hammer and axes tap out an unrelentingly cheerless rhythm through the afternoon.
Ride south to Saigon—a phrase that sounds a lot more romantic than the noxious, insanely dangerous reality. Trucks, trucks, trucks: I love each and every one of you murderous gargantuan darlings...
The rear suspension seems to be within tolerable limits now I am travelling alone. As Ollie, another Transalp rider, explained to me “these bikes are a very jealous companion. They play up like a spoilt child when you divert attentions. No sharing.” A possessive beast I am saddled on.
Ho Chi Minh City is one of several giant urban Asian disasters. You know things aren’t right when “fuckie fuckie, very cheap” is the nicest thing anyone’s said to you. Finding the tourist ghetto pretty hellish after months on the road. Even am shocked at the immodesty of the European females in their tights bright vests. Am I getting old?
Cambodian roads are not as bad as everyone makes out. Okay, they are not tarmac, and turn to sludge in the rain, but they still join places up: a vital part of roadness. The trick on a motorbike is not to slow down; stay at the top of potholes and glide man, just glide. The half-built bridges, with gaping holes designed especially to sink your front tyre are a bit of a laugh though. Gliding carefully.
Angkor is just as they say. Perfect with your own vehicle. Wind in hair; low yellow sun; bike purring; ancient jungle cities of stone all around. Oh yes, this works for me.
A cop tries to stop me on way back for doing a correct left turn at the traffic lights, instead of forcing my way across the minor road entrance blocking everyone’s way. This seems to constitute dangerous driving. He jumps out into the middle of the road and furiously waves a battery-powered baton at me. It is like a light sabre toy. I can hardly see the red plastic tip flash pathetically in the sun. Hilarious. I accelerate towards him broadly grinning. He steps aside astutely. No bribe for you matey.
Delayed a day at the port. They won’t accept my signature—“on passport it is different”. I lose the debate. It’s not that different, and I have lots of ID. “Still, it’s different.” Thankfully the guy comes up with a solution. For a small fee, they send it to their in-house forger, who does a far better Simon Kennedy than me.
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